On Monday morning, Bassam Nashawati encouraged his audience to join in for a sing-along of José Feliciano’s timeless Christmas hit, “Feliz Navidad.” Not only was this an unusual song for the San Antonio Symphony first violinist to play in public, but his audience was also quite atypical. All were dressed in the standard orange jumpsuits of the Bexar County Jail, as inmates of Unit G in Tower C of the downtown jail complex.
Many gave full-throated voice to Feliciano’s well-known mix of English and Spanish lyrics as Detention Deputy Gerardo Cruz watched, bemused.
Nashawati was one of 19 musicians making their annual holiday caroling visit to the jail, all volunteers from the Symphony, the U.S. Air Force Band of the West, and the University of Texas at San Antonio music program.
“This is a special thing,” Nashawati said, “to bring the joy of music to those who are incarcerated.”
All inmates usually hear in the cell block is “a bunch of cursing,” Cruz said, and the live holiday music is a good change of atmosphere, “just to mellow it out.” In fact, just before the eight-member ensemble arrived to Unit G, one inmate had to be confined to his cell for being too disruptive, Cruz said. However, that inmate peered out of the small window in his cell door as the musicians played.
“It’s some type of hope for them,” Cruz said of being visited by caroling musicians, even if briefly. “To them, it says someone cares.”
The group of festively dressed volunteer musicians was led by Allyson Dawkins, principal violist with the Symphony. During her first year with the orchestra 30 years ago, Dawkins volunteered to join the concertmaster in holiday caroling at local hospitals. When the concertmaster left the following year, Dawkins took over. She has led the volunteer group ever since, caroling three or four times per year at local hospitals and the jail.
Among her new recruits this year was River Rios, a 23-year-old viola student training with Dawkins.
“I think it’s really important to teach students how to volunteer, and how to be ambassadors for music in the community,” Dawkins said, and Rios agreed.
“I like this,” Rios said as he followed Deputy Monica Bermudez, who brought the group to another location in the jail. “It seems like a good thing to do for the people in here,” he added.
He studies music composition at UTSA, where violinist Gene Dowdy is orchestra director. Dowdy was “roped in” by Dawkins 20 years ago – happily, he insists – and has joined in each year since.
Earlier in Unit F of Tower C, the ensemble stopped to play three songs for incarcerated youth offenders. Dowdy counted off to lead a jazzy version of “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” as 32 inmates were served a lunch of beans, eggs, tortillas, and cornbread. Cheering erupted from the cells as the song finished, with muffled shouts of “Merry Christmas” issuing through the steel doors. Other inmates peered through thick glass walls in the adjoining unit, smiles clearly visible.
The group moved on to the unit reserved for military veterans, where one inmate said the version of “O Little Town of Bethlehem” “brings peace.” The same inmate yelled “Thank you, God bless” through the window of his cell door as musicians filed out.
Clarinetist and Band of the West Staff Sgt. Michele Von Haugg said she appreciates the chance “to make a connection with people who don’t have the opportunity to connect with daily life.”
Von Haugg tagged along with bandmate Airman First Class Daniel Dowling, who carried his snare drum and brushes from location to location throughout the jail. Band of the West members frequently volunteer for holiday caroling, Dowling said, though this will be his last holiday season in San Antonio. He won a prestigious spot with the Air Force Band and will move to Washington, D.C. in 2019. Both followed bandmate Jaime Parker, a trombonist, whose wife, Anastasia Parker, plays first violin in the Symphony, and whom Dawkins described as a zealous volunteer.
“One of our main missions is to do work in the community,” Dowling said, describing the Band of the West as an “instrument” for the public affairs division of the Air Force.
Dawkins was disappointed that the musicians didn’t get to end the day caroling for Bexar County Sheriff Javier Salazar, as they usually would. Salazar was busy dealing with an issue at the jail, she was told.
The other group of 11 musicians arrived in the lobby after completing its caroling rounds. Along with violins and violas, a trumpet, and a clarinet, this group featured a double bass, two trombones, and a triangle. As a full ensemble, the group played three carols for jail staff in the main lobby, with Riely Francis, principal percussionist for the Symphony, ringing out a syncopated rhythm on his triangle.
Reflecting on the day, Nashawati said he considers music his gift to give to inmates. “They see that we are here for them,” he said. “One bad decision they made can cost them years of freedom,” yet, experiencing musicians close up is a one-on-one moment of connection that can help them feel a little bit of the holiday spirit despite their circumstances, Nashawati said.
Lauren Eberhart, who plays trumpet with the Symphony, called music “one of the building blocks of humanity.
“I don’t think the people in here need it any less” than anyone else, she said.
“We’re not perfect, everybody sins,” said Orticia Garza as she waited for an appointment in one of the blue, fabric-covered pews of the jail’s strictly monitored waiting area. “I love it,” she said of the melodic music filling the lobby with sound.
Garza teared up as the group began a reverent version of Silent Night. “It picks me up, right? It picks us up,” she said. “It’s about Jesus.”